“A child is kidnapped with consequences that extend across worlds…A writer reaches into the past to discover the truth about a possible murder…Far away a young woman prepares for her mysterious future…”
Nina Allen’s The Race (Titan Books)
Such is the description on the back of the new Titan Books release. While a technically accurate description, I found the more I read of the book, the less this paragraph reflected what was inside. In reality, The Race is a collection of four novellas that all have a tenuous relationship to each other. Not all of it is set in the alternate future England, only the first and the last stories, while the middle two are set firmly in the earth we know. If you are looking for a true sci-fi experience you may be disappointed as Allen instead focuses on the characters and relationships of each to one another rather than the world they inhabit. This is a positive, in my opinion, as well rounded characters are one of her strengths.
Part one is told from the point of view of Jenna, about her and her brother Del, and the post ecological disaster wasteland of a future England. The sport of breeding and racing genetically superior “smart-dogs” drive the narrative, along with the disappearance of a child. The prose is wonderful and Jenna is an interesting character, but just when the plot seems to be reaching a high point, the reader is left dangling with an unresolved conflict you imagine will be explored more thoroughly in later parts of the book.
It’s a hope that goes unfulfilled as part two, “Christy,” picks up with an entirely different character in a current timeline. A bit of a twist is revealed that ties it to the first part of the book, but the second story is largely self contained. There are parallels as this is another tale about a brother and sister, told from the sister’s point of view. The tone is darker as Derek proves capable of violent and reprehensible acts that Christy has to experience first hand, while Jenna simply implied Del might be capable of violence.
Part three is told from Alex’s point of view, a character who was previously involved with Derek’s girlfriend. These middle two stories, back to back, are the most traditionally laid out narratives as they seem to follow each other chronologically and progress the same plot. He provides some important details about Christy and his chapter is necessary to crack the code of what the whole novel is about.
The last part of the novel, “Maree” finally returns us to the thread of story started in the beginning of the novel. Of course, by the time the reader arrives here, you should definitely be seeing the story through a different lens. It’s not a concrete or neat tidying of events, rather it shows a positive point of view from one of the past narrators that may not have been possible before.
Some of my summation may sound ambiguous, I know, but to reveal more of the connection between these characters would be spoiling the entire purpose of the book. I was a bit surprised that I had to work to get to what I believe is the main thrust of the book–an acceptance of past events by one of the main characters that lets them heal and continue on with a positive point of view. This may not sound like the typical science fiction novel and it’s not. It’s literary fiction and character development in a sci-fi skin.
I do highly recommend this novel, though. The prose is confidently and wonderfully written. Nina Allen proves to be a skilled and poetic wordsmith, whose descriptions seem relatable and honest. She writes about some of the horrors of abandonment, rape and hopelessness with the same light touch she uses for the remembrance of childhood nostalgia. While her characters aren’t always likeable, they do seem real, with their own motivations and points of view.
As primarily a short story and anthology writer, Allen has used The Race to showcase a talent for the longer form, with her first novel. It was an unexpected book, but the way the narrative weaved and connected left me turning the plot over and over again in my subconscious for a long time after I was through. I think anyone willing to give the book a try, who’s not there primarily to see strange worlds and alien races, but loves words well written, will find The Race a valuable use of their time.